Twitter is no longer just the place that people go to voice their most inane thoughts to people who couldn't care less. Nor, despite the numbers, is it simply a place for marketers to hang out and push products and content to the hungry masses.
People are using Twitter to find out about events, as they are happening, continents away. People are using Twitter to have a voice in countries where having an opinion can be illegal.
Twitter has evolved into a medium that now demands our respect.
Which is why today's outage on Twitter will spark changes in how we communicate online.
Twitter as News Source
Twitter has been used more and more lately by older, more conservative news media in their traditional TV, radio and newspaper reporting.
For going on a year now, traditional news outfits like CNN have been using Twitter as a source of commentary that has been appearing in actual news broadcasts.
Twitter as Critical Communications Tool
As the Mumbai bombing events were unfolding, people were finding out – well I found out anyway – what was happening in Mumbai from Twitter, not from TV or radio. People at the scene were reporting on Twitter about the situation before major news outfits could begin to respond.
It was at that moment, I believe, that journalists really stopped and asked themselves what Twitter was really all about. Private citizens were reporting on the situation and getting information out much faster than a news organization could contact a local correspondant and get them on to the scene.
More recently, and much closer to the point, is the recent situtaion in Iran. When the physical dangers of protesting in Iran became increasingly obvious, it wasn't traditional journalists who were able to get the story out. It was average people on Twitter.
This comment made on mashable from a lady named Laura who claims to work for the Red Cross sums up nicely how critical Twitter is becoming as a communication tool:
"I work for the Red Cross and we use Twitter extensively during disasters to provide updates about our services and how to keep your family safe. In fact, I've used it to pass information to CNN during breaking news situations like Hurricane Gustav and the Grand Canyon flooding a couple of weeks ago. Rick Sanchez uses stuff right off our Twitter channel during his broadcast. Kudos to all the media outlets who are on board with Twitter."
People are looking to Twitter in a crisis as a source of information.
Twitter as Highly Vulnerable
But Twitter is a single company, run by a single group of 29 people. Funded by venture capital and yet to turn a proft, or even present a business model to date. And today, Twitter was sued for patent infringement.
What kind of situation are we creating, where a communication tool is seen as so vital to the flow of worldwide information that news and potentially government organizations need to get involved during times of crisis? Is the future of journalism in the hands of one small company operated by 29 people with no business model?
What if Twitter decides that it doesn't want a story covered? Does the site go down then? Does the story have trouble "rising to the top"? I'm sure this is not the case, but you get the idea of the possible.
The DDOS attack lobbed against Twitter today clearly demonstrates how fragile this tool is as a platform for worldwide communication. And don't think that the larger news organizations, or even government organizations, aren't watching closely.
Communication as Democracy
If we have entered an age where distributed communications are now the norm (and we have entered this age even if it's not blatantly obvious yet), then these tools must be reliable and decentralized, just like the Internet was intended.
Maybe there's something along the lines of a "BitTorrent for communications" in the works somewhere. Who knows.
But one thing you can expect for sure, is changes in the way that media interacts with Twitter. If Twitter wants to continue being the foremost platform for distributed communications, it's going to have to do a better job. And for that, turning a profit wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Vice President at Search Engine People, helping clients with Conversion Optimization, Analytics, and On-Page SEO.
Online Marketer since June 2000, Internet geek since 1994. Follow me on twitter at @semlady to see what I'm reading now.